Painters care about it. Cinematographers as well. And teachers have long given up on it. I am talking about attention!
Most talks and presentations end with the sentence: “Thank you for your attention.” But somehow we are pretending that attention is a given. Attention is probably one of the most valuable resources in our today’s busy world. The great news for us speakers: Yes, when people are attending our talk out of their own free will, there is a great chance that they gift us with their attention, at least some of it.
The air is filled with attention, but we have to work with it. In the same way, just the mere presence of oil colours does not create a painting itself. They have to be controlled and guided by the painter. We, the speaker, are the painter. But how can we control the audience’s attention?
Follow my eyes
When you have a conversation with someone, focus on something behind the other person. Chances are high that your conversational partner is turning her head around or asking you: “Is there something behind me?”.
Our primordial instinct to follow another person’s line of sight is deeply embedded in our genes. Maybe our fellow human is seeing a potential danger coming or a positive counterpart. It is important for our survival.
This behaviour can come in quite handy for us on stage. Only by the movement of our own eyes, we can move many others. When we want to have the audience look back at the presentation, why don’t we look there first? Not on the monitor where the presenter’s view is running, but on the big screen for our audience.
“You can’t!”, many people shout. “Never turn your head towards the presentation!” Oh, buhu. Come on, grow up. There is a rule for every rule, why break it? Guiding attention with intention is definitely one of them. 🙂
Point, don’t tell
A fist with a stretched-out index finger is almost as effective as our eyes. Just keep in mind that we are usually not happy when someone points a finger at us. These gestures often create a feeling of blame. If you want to move the attention to another person in the audience, use an open hand with the back pointing towards the ground instead. It is way more friendly and inviting!
Less is more … attention?
Let’s talk about the slides themselves. How do we point our audience’s eyes to the visual element of interest?
When we feel that we somehow have to visually prioritize our information, chances are high that we don’t need most of this information. A commons presentation’s purpose is to support our talk. Often, presentations tend to do exactly the opposite and are hurting the overall experience. Our audience should be able to instantly tell us what element is the focus of a particular slide and why we are presenting it to them. That does not mean that our slides should just contain a full-screen photo and a couple of bold, white words on them. Additional elements can make a slide visually more engaging.
A very effective but typically disregarded technique to guide attention to a particular element is animation. Everyone knows that we can blend in our bullet points one after another, but very few people actually do. Why? Because we don’t want to click so often? It is more than comfortable for our audience to be presented with one bit of information at a time instead of having to look for the correct piece of information themselves.
I like to move it!
Here comes our reptile brain again. Our attention is hardwired to prioritize moving over static objects. A survival thing, once again. Many people demonize animations inside presentations, but like everything, when used with a purpose they can be of tremendous help. Whether we animate our virtual camera on screen with Prezi or slowly fade in our bullet points in PowerPoint, the attention goes usually back to the presentation. These slow fade-ins are such a clever way to make elements appear on-screen since they are subtle and elegantly control the attention of our audience.
Like mentioned in the article The Match Cut in Presentations, you can anticipate your animations by using your eyes and hands to absolutely make sure no one in the audience is losing orientation.
Attention is a valuable resource, and we as speakers have to work with it on stage. Instead of randomly letting the attention flow around, we must catch it and guide it throughout our presentation. Our own eye movements, hand gestures and animations can help us with that.